Breaking the Silence: Reminiscences of a Hidden Child
Contributor: David Stubblebine
Review Date: 25 Jun 2014
I picked up this book for one reason: the author, Paul Schwarzbart, was my high school French teacher. More than forty years after high school, I have forgotten most of my French but I certainly remember Mr. Schwarzbart. While I was in school, there were quiet murmurs about Mr. Schwarzbart's story of survival during World War II but it was too personal to be spoken about openly – at least, he never spoke of it openly. That changed in 2004 when he published this book, aptly titled Breaking the Silence.
Mr. Schwarzbart was born in Vienna, Austria but when the Nazi occupation made living there unbearable for his Jewish family, his parents fled to Belgium taking their young son with them. Soon after the move, just after Mr. Schwarzbart's seventh birthday, his father was taken away by Belgian authorities. There was no way to know it at the time, but he would never be seen again (only after the war would Mr. Schwarzbart find out that he was part of the forced march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald where he developed severe frostbite in both feet and soon died of sepsis, two months before the camp was liberated). As the war progressed, life in Brussels became increasingly dangerous for Mr. Schwarzbart and his mother. With his mother's reluctant (and heartbreaking) approval, Mr. Schwarzbart was led away by a member of the Belgian resistance to a place of supposed safety; his mother knew nothing more than that. That place was a Catholic school for boys in a majestic chateau in the Ardennes forest near the border with Luxembourg. There, under a different name, Mr. Schwarzbart lived as a Catholic boy among 124 other Catholic boys – constantly fearful he would be found out. He played his part well and in time even became an alter boy. When the war ended, Mr. Schwarzbart, at 12 years old, made his own way back to Brussels where he miraculously found his mother as they were both walking down a street. They ultimately emigrated to the United States where Mr. Schwarzbart spent the rest of his mother's life fulfilling the promise he made to his father the last time they spoke in 1940, that he would look after his mother. In 1988, Mr. Schwarzbart received an invitation from the Catholic school in Belgium to return for a reunion of the "Hidden Children." He had no idea what to make of this since he honestly believed he had been the only Jewish boy among 124 Catholic boys. This was when he learned for the first time that there had been a total of 83 Jewish boys in his school, all being shielded from the Nazis. After the reunion (a story in and of itself), Mr. Schwarzbart visited the Belgian Archives where he was able to view his own file, his mother's file, and astonishingly, his father's file (at the conclusion of the Nuremburg Trials, the files for all people deported from Belgium were returned to Belgium; there was row upon row upon row of shelves packed floor to ceiling with these files). The Archives also held records from the Belgian Resistance that revealed some 3,000 Jewish children from the Brussels area had been shielded from the Nazis in various ways and survived the war.
In his book, Mr. Schwarzbart tells his story in a very frank, honest, and complete manner. He relays not only the historical facts but also describes his inner-most feelings and fears as he wended his way through his childhood wartime labyrinth. He describes the deep resolve that crystallized later in his life to never let anything like the Holocaust happen again, and the first step in preventing a repeat of something like that is to never allow what happened be forgotten. He believes he was spared in the war so that he could survive and bear witness; this book was written for that purpose.
It is difficult for me to offer a recommendation of this book with any kind of objectivity. For me, once I learned this book existed, it was a book I had to own and a book I had to read. Others may feel less compelled. I believe it is an important story in its own right even though it is a very personal and individual story. The story certainly has parallels with and crosses over to thousands upon thousands of other stories from those times (perhaps millions). As such, it is a valuable look at that segment of our history and on that basis alone, I suppose the book should come highly recommended.
The book's introductory pages contain a quotation by Rabbi Joachim Prinz that goes like this:
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939